Page 1 of 2 BOOK REVIEW How to project 'soft power' The First Resort of Kings by Richard T Arndt
Reviewed by Martin A Schell
"In a divided world in which the real issue of division is the cultural issue,
cultural relations are not irrelevancies. They are everything."
- Archibald MacLeish
Politicians have a habit of telling their electorates that the country
is going to war "as a last resort". This raises the question: What was the
"first resort" in foreign policy that was attempted and deemed a failure?
Richard Arndt enthusiastically explains how The First Resort of Kings (and,
one hopes, presidents) is cultural diplomacy. Cultural diplomacy is an
"inexpensive, age-old tool" for achieving national security that can be summed
up as the willingness to learn as well as teach. Arndt himself embodies this
theme, with a career that
has bridged the worlds of academia and diplomacy. He taught French at Columbia
University, worked for the US Information Agency (USIA) for 24 years, and
served as president of the Fulbright Association.
The book's first chapter grandly summarizes cultural diplomacy "from the bronze
age to World War I", describing how Alexander the Great assimilated local
cultures into his empire by respecting them. We read about Benjamin Franklin,
Thomas Jefferson, and the behind-the-scenes efforts that won France's support
for the American Revolution. A host of other figures are mentioned as well:
Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who refused to lead a crusade against Islam,
instead opening his new university in Naples to Muslim scholars in the 13th
century; Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit who propagated his faith in China and other
parts of Asia four centuries ago; Daniel Bliss, who founded the American
University of Beirut; and Albert Giesecke, an American who helped modernize
Peru's Ministry of Education early in the 20th century.
World War I marked a turning point in human history. In recent years, many
Americans have blithely referred to it as the beginning of the American
Century. A much smaller number of Americans are aware of the ways in which that
war marked a turning point in domestic policy as well as foreign. Arndt
recounts president Woodrow Wilson's need to drum up support for the war by
exciting the public enough to overturn the century-old Monroe Doctrine.
Enter George Creel, the United States' first "minister of propaganda", who
formed the Committee for Public Information (CPI) on Wilson's express orders.
Experts from the new fields of public relations and advertising were recruited
to convince their fellow citizens. Those who were not convinced generally kept
quiet, because the Alien and Sedition Acts equated dissent with disloyalty.
The committee's molding of "the waywardness of individuals" (Wilson's phrase)
into wartime discipline was a significant factor in the creation of what came
to be called Big Government. However, the success of the CPI had a more lasting
impact on foreign policy. It sowed the seeds for "public diplomacy", which now
focuses on storytelling rather than the open and honest exchange of ideas.
This dichotomy occupies most of Arndt's book, which details the continual
struggle between proponents of one-way information (ie, just tell America's
story to the world and they will all love us) and those who favor cultural
diplomacy (ie, two-way communication). As a dramatic example of the work of the
CPI, Arndt mentions the Hollywood movie Civilization, which originally
portrayed Jesus and the president of the United States on the side of peace in
1916, but a year later was revised to show the two leaders favoring war.
Although the CPI was disbanded after only two years, its influence persisted.
"German, Russian, Italian, and Japanese totalitarians studied" its methods and
applied them to their own people. The term "information" became enshrined in US
parlance as a euphemism for propaganda (a term that most of my compatriots
still find abhorrent). As Arndt points out, Major-General William "Wild Bill"
Donovan chose the title "coordinator of information" during World War II before
dividing his mandate into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the precursor
of the Central Intelligence Agency) and the Office of War Information (OWI).
While the OSS engaged in black ops and black lies, the OWI spun white lies.
This book challenges the rise of the latter type of lie in the field of
In reaction to the CPI, president Franklin Roosevelt rejected the public
relations/advertising approach and established a Good Neighbor Policy, as
expressed in his first inaugural address in 1933. Five years later, the State
Department established its Division of Cultural Relations under the guidance of
secretary of state Cordell Hull, as well as visionaries like Sumner Welles and
Ben Cherrington. Following the precedents of France's office of cultural
relations (1923) and the British Council (1934), it took a long-term view of
international relations that cherished cultural exchanges and a gradualist
Welles' guideline was that government should contribute 5% and private sources
95%. This may sound prescient to readers, but actually it mirrored a de facto
paradigm that had already been in place for centuries. The new element was the
secular non-profit sector, including such giants as the Carnegie Endowment and
the Rockefeller Foundation.
World War II brought increasing government involvement and high expectations of
fast results. Cultural diplomacy was seen as a way to counter Axis influence
and bring neutral nations to the side